We’ve all heard the stories of island natives who built ever-greater idols to their gods while despoiling their environment and ultimately destroying their society. The true tales of Easter Island join the wondrous legends of virgins thrown into volcanoes or holocausts to vengeful gods.
Last Wednesday morning, I rose to see an odd cloud formation hovering over London through my window. I quickly realised it was not a cloud, but a dense plume of smoke drifting westwards on the wind. Switching on the television, I saw images of the massive fire in Grenfell Tower, a high-rise residential just to the north.
The final death toll is still not known, and police say they may never be able to identify all the bodies they find in the wreckage. To universal acclaim, the emergency services responded with speed and courage, just as they had in the recent terrorist attacks. The community has opened its arms to the hundreds of victims, offering them food, clothing, shelter and money, via a fund-raising drive sponsored by a local newspaper. And the government has promised an inquiry, to get to the root of the fire’s cause.
However, very quickly, it emerged that residents had been warning authorities for years of the building’s dangerous conditions, to no avail. Experts had cautioned that the cladding used in the tower’s recent renovation, and many other high-rises, was a fire risk. Repeatedly, their calls went unheeded. While safer material would have raised the refurbishment cost by a paltry £5,000 – or less than £100 per life lost so far – politicians appear to have either resisted measures to restrict the use of cheaper materials, or taken a light-touch approach to enforcement, so as to encourage investment.
Such regulations and constraints on the movement of private business have been in the crosshairs of politicians for the last generation, with every instance of deregulation seen as an act of liberation from an oppressive state. Whether they speak of draining the swamp, as Donald Trump does, or of ‘bonfires of regulations,’ as has been the preference in the UK, politicians have taken to describing regulations as evil curses that must be purged. Yet as we now see, the market’s Savonarolas can extract a high price in human suffering.
After the fire, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called for some of London’s vacant luxury homes to be requisitioned in order to house the hundreds of people left homeless by the fire. This measure was opposed on the grounds it would violate the legal rights of the owners. You get the logic. But take a step back and imagine yourself living in another time and place: a future anthropologist, beholding an ancient civilisation that left people in the streets rather than violate the sanctity of empty homes.
Of course, the argument for maintaining market principles at all cost is that they will lead to faster economic growth, ultimately benefiting us all. Yet even if we believe that, the conviction makes us resemble those ancient island natives much more than we would like to think. There was a rationale to the sacrifice of human lives before their idols, and for as long as the people believed their gods were happy, social order was maintained . So it goes today. For as long as we all believe in private property, the market can function. The wage of that faith is that sometimes, human lives must be sacrificed.
In my new book, Twilight of the Money Gods, I look at the record of modern history, in which such things as famines were allowed to run their course on the grounds that to intervene would have distorted the market’s emergence. When our modern campaigns to create market societies are compared to the religious crusades of old, we reveal ourselves to be as willing as our ancestors to sacrifice human lives in the defense of the beliefs and principles we hold sacred.
As with any religion, our code justifies itself by saying that the sacrifice will serve us well. Islamist martyrs blow themselves up to attain eternal life, we accept that some people may burn in towering pyres. Stick with it through the pain and suffering, we hear time and again, for then like the ancient Jews we will pass through the sea to a Promised Land of abundance.
‘The sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath’ Christ told his followers. It’s a useful bit of wisdom for latter-day apostles of market fundamentalism. The market was made for man, and the notion that we should always adjust our lives to fit market dictates is just that, a notion. Clinging to it at all cost will lead the way of Savonarola. Like any religion, the message of our economic doctrine will only take root if the soil which receives the seed has been made receptive. If it is barren, the seed dies. And today, the people who can still see the Promised Land dwindles by the year, as our slavish devotion to the miracle of the free market leads us to tolerate societies in which inequality worsens by the day, and the poor are left to fend for themselves. If the market fundamentalists ignore the omens, they may one day find everyone starts looking for new gods.